Jane Austen, Master Worldbuilder

One area of interest that I’ve found a lot of fantasy and science fiction authors and fans share is the works of Jane Austen. I’m not sure what the connection is, other than perhaps the sense of worldbuilding. Austen wasn’t really doing worldbuilding the way we think about it. She was just writing what she knew, the society around her. But it’s such a vividly depicted world that’s utterly alien to modern readers that it functions like reading a fantasy or science fiction novel set in another world. We know exactly how her world works, what the social rules are, what the expectations are for each kind of person and how the different groups are meant to interact. We know what they do for leisure, what their spiritual beliefs are and how they vary from person to person in the way they actually carry them out. We know what their courtship rituals are and what the penalties are for violating those rules. If you’re writing about another world, reading Jane Austen will teach you a lot about how to depict that world in a story and use the rules of the world to create tension and conflict and to drive the plot.

Although there’s a lot more narrative exposition than you can get away with in a modern novel, the interesting thing about Austen is the way she lays out the rules and how they affect the plot. It usually comes through dialogue, and the dialogue happens because those rules are creating some kind of conflict, like Mrs. Bennet’s diatribes about entailment and inheritance laws that mean her daughters have to find good husbands because they won’t inherit their father’s estate. That drives most of what happens in the novel, and you come away from reading Pride and Prejudice understanding how it all works without there having been that much exposition.

PBS is currently showing the series Sanditon, which is based on the fragment of a novel Austen left unfinished when she died. She only wrote eleven chapters, and in those chapters she mostly established the main cast of characters and the situation they were in. The plot hadn’t really kicked in yet, other than setting up that it was going to have something to do with turning a small seaside town into a fashionable resort while a bunch of relatives are campaigning to inherit from a wealthy elderly woman who has no children to inherit. The TV series takes this setup and spins a story from it. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. I suppose it might be okay if you just take it as a costume drama that happens to be set in the Regency era. It doesn’t really work as any kind of Jane Austen story for me, mostly because I think the screenwriter forgot that one of the keys to Austen’s works was a strong sense of how that world worked. This show goes far astray from any sense of those rules and structures, but also without a sense of real tension coming from those rules or consequences of those rules being violated.

I kind of think Jane is spinning in her grave. I’m watching because I’m curious how it will all play out. The edition of the novel I have is completed by “another lady,” and I may read the rest of it to see how that author sees it. It’s like Jane Austen left a writing prompt and it’s up to us to figure out how to finish the story.

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